U.S. Air Force engineers are testing on-orbit a technique to extend the life of the 19 GPS IIR and IIR-M satellites on orbit, roughly 60 percent of the current constellation.
A new charging method may reduce the rate of satellite battery degradation, thereby extending satellite operational life. If the technique passes the test, the initiative could add a combined 20 years to the life of the satellites — saving the Air Force tens of millions of dollars in the process.
Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, credits Capt. Jacob Hempen of the Air Force’s 2nd Space Operations Squadron for the job. Capt. Hempen says in turn that Warren Hwang of the Aerospace Corporation originated the idea.
When satellite solar panels are directly exposed to the Sun, they charge satellite batteries while continuing to power other operations on board the space vehicle. When the satellite passes into the Sun’s shadow behind the Earth, it runs on batteries. The batteries can be recharged at variable rates. When some of the batteries are powered above a certain rate threshold, they can overheat, accelerating their natural rate of decay.
Lowering battery charging rates could still enable the satellites to perform well while minimizing the rate of degradation. Hitting the optimum number called for some finely-honed calculations.
The satellites were built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, and the oldest still in operation was launched in 1997. They had an initial design life of eight years, which many have now well outlasted. If the technique proves out and is carefully applied across the board, it could conceivably fill in replenishment gaps equivalent more than two additional spacecraft — conceivably as much hundreds of millions of dollars in build and launch costs, postponed. In today’s budget environment, a postponement can be construed as equivalent to outright savings.